The stroke is smooth, the blade angled and the wrist moving in a small controlled arc. And again. And again. Rainbow layers line the cutting board and sushi flowers emerge like origami, blooming in close quarters on a lacquered tray. But the clock is ticking: This is not only art, it's performance; and these chefs are being judged on both talent and technique.
The sushi chefs must remember to wipe down the wood block, the knife blade (continually), the presentation tray, even the rim of the rice steamer. They must make sure the straw mat in which they roll the maki is turned the right way so that the grass grain runs smooth. They must set aside trimmings that might be used later at a real sushi bar, and throw away the bits that wouldn't. They should mound the green pungent wasabi along one side of the bowl so that just the right amount comes off onto their fingers when they sweep their hand across the surface and down over the rice. And they must clean the table, overturn the wasabi dish, rinse the towels and put the rice away before stepping away and calling time.
In sushi culture, standards are high.
But in an age when mass-produced sushi is shipped across country every night and popped into grocery cases as "fresh," and pay-by-the-weigh luncheonettes pile unseasoned rice and spinach rolls next to the macaroni and cheese, the old-line sushi professionals fear a crucial decline in their art even at the highest levels. Sushi's popularity, they believe, could be its undoing.
"In foreign countries, they no longer take old forms so seriously," says Shigao Mori, chairman of the All-Japan Sushi Association (AJSA). "Even perhaps, the Japanese in other countries. But in Japan it is very different; tradition is very important."
As it is to the U.S. Sushi Society. Last month it hosted its second annual skills and technique contest, a fledgling sub-subdivision of the "Sushi Olympics," held every four years in Tokyo. The Washington area competition is the first sanctioned outside Japan, and consequently, it's getting quite a bit of attention: For the second time, the six-judge panel of experts flown in from Japan has been headed by Mori.
In near-silence, nine sushi chefs from the Washington area and New Jersey raced to make 30 pieces of sushi and three maki rolls. In 25 minutes, they cut the bamboo leaf decorations; trim and slice the fish (in evenly sized pieces); arrange them on palmed cylinders of rice; trim the nori (dried sea laver) sheets; spoon the salmon roe and sea urchin into rings of nori, like mini-souffle collars; roll, tighten and slice the maki; then arrange all the sushi on a round lacquer tray before cleaning the "kitchen" and replacing their tools.
The Tokyo Olympics are extremely prestigious, and competitors must survive several rounds to get to the big game. There are seven regional contests every year within Japan -- Tokyo has so many restaurants that it is its own "region" -- and from the winners of the regional events are culled 30 chefs who create maki (rice and seafood or vegetables rolled in or around sheets of seaweed, which are then sliced into rounds exposing decorative patterns) and 50 specialists in nigiri (in which the main ingredient, usually raw fish or shellfish, is bedded on a small cylinder of seasoned rice or captured in the nori circles). Organizers of the Washington event hope that in February 2003, they will have representatives in Tokyo standing "before the board," the literal meaning of the term itamae, or sushi chef.
The program is ambitious, considering the U.S. society so far includes only nine restaurants from the District, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey. (The local restaurants are Yosaku and Sushi Taro in the District, Matuba of Arlington and Bethesda, Tako Grill of Bethesda and Tachibana of McLean.) After the 2002 Washington contest, the U.S. winners will themselves be pitted against one another in a final pre-Olympic round, and then the winners of the two classes will fly to Tokyo. (Already there's a heavy favorite for one slot: Hideo Kurihara of the Ushi Wakamaru restaurant in Cliffside Park, N.J., who's won the nigiri division both times.)
According to the rules, all entrants should have at least three years' experience, but at this early stage, organizers relax that a bit: This year's contestants, representing all the member restaurants except Tachibana, range in age from 20 to 46 and have from two years' experience to 21. Nevertheless, experience will out: Both Kurihara and the 2001 maki champion, Kiyomu Yamanaka of Matuba, have the full 21 years behind them.
While the contestants are intensely aware of their role as standard-bearers, they are also, to some extent, fending off the growing influence of the celebrity chef. While more and more Americans are considering cooking careers, they often expect to master the business, become famous and open their own restaurants in a matter of years -- whereas the classical sushi apprenticeship in Japan began with the washing of vegetables and could last as long as 15 years, and the ideal is modesty, not fame. The contest rules even warn that some contestants become too focused on winning instead of on character.
"They don't understand discipline," one Japanese sushi chef stormed a couple of years ago. "They want to work six months, take a vacation, get a raise and move on in two years." That's part of what underlies this contest.
There are two categories at the Washington event, the nigiri class (also called Edo-style sushi, because it developed in Edo, now Tokyo) and a second contest, only 15 minutes long, in which the chefs must make five maki rolls, varying the ingredients and the patterns. (The Japanese Olympics include four events, including sasakiri, the ornate carving of bamboo leaves into cranes, shrimp and flowers; and kansai, the creation of representational sushi, such as animals or even seascapes.) The time is surprisingly tight, considering all the details involved: In fact, of the nine contestants in the nigiri division, only four met the time limit, and five or six the maki deadline.
Before the actual competition, Kurihara, the defending U.S. nigiri champion, demonstrated his award-winning technique, from peeling and trimming the shrimp to wiping down the board and raising his hand, the signal for "finished." In his demonstration, he actually pared his time to 23 minutes, although he allowed himself one more for safety's sake in the actual contest.
As he prepared to slice through a roll, Kurihara centered it on the cutting board, lifted his ring and small fingers and paused a balance beat, then pressed the knife through the middle of the seaweed. The other contestests watched intently. "The judges look to see how even the cuts are," whispered Terry Segawa, an officer of the U.S. organization. "A sushi knife is not symmetrical like a Western knife; it's curved on one side, so you have to cut at a slight angle."
Another demonstrator, Tokyo chef Tai Kenji, chose to create two beautiful pieces of kansai that illustrated the duality of Zen: one a crane with its neck curved over its wing, a traditional symbol of longevity; and the other a camellia bloom, the essence of transience. Contestant Jeff Ramsey, 24, of Bethesda's Tako Grill was so impressed by the crane, made of squid, that he immediately copied it as the finishing touch for his presentation, which helped win him second prize in the nigiri competition.
(In Japanese culture, art doesn't just imitate life, or vice versa; they are indivisible. The two guiding principles of Japanese design are wabi -- quiet and simplicity -- and sabi, understated elegance. In each season, clothing, decor, even food should reflect the natural changes -- hence the sashimi "flowers," which you wouldn't classically see in winter, and rolls that when sliced open reveal petals or even carp flying over rocks. This is subtle stuff, to be considered and admired, not just consumed.)
The discipline may be entirely Japanese, but it is not exclusively so; both years there have been Hispanic and Japanese American contestants in the United States competition. Though women were traditionally considered undesirable sushi chefs because their hands were supposedly too warm, and no women have yet competed in the Washington competition, a few women have at various times worked at sushi bars in the Washington area (at Kaz Sushi Bistro, Matuba and until recently at Tako Grill, among others), so watch that space. So long as the would-be chefs display a desire to master correct technique, the AJSA is happy, Segawa says.
Because of the delicacy of working with raw fish, and also because the food is prepared using the bare hands, the sushi chef must be fanatically careful about contamination. This is more than just sanitation, it's a matter of respect: Cleanliness is next to zenliness, to so speak. So attention is paid to the chef's appearance, from his head (clean, sharply folded cap, no bangs in the eyes, no beard) to his feet (white sneakers or shoes only). All clothing must be white (including, the rules point out, underwear), and without logos or visible brand names. Even the color of the knife handle should be modest natural wood.
This is also partly a matter of self-preservation: After all, raw foods require careful handling, and though the Japanese are careful not to impugn anyone, they are concerned that the growing number of self-taught sushimakers and less rigorous high-quality seafood purveyors might result in incautious consumers getting "off" meals. Any health backlash would be very hard on the thriving Japanese restaurant industry.
Hence in the competitions, the completion and arrangement of the sushi itself accounts for only 50 of the 100 judging points. Prepping the area counts 5, the cleanliness 10, the technique 25 and the cleaning up another 10.
The chef must stand erect, and to the professional eye, the relaxed but close position of the arms and the graceful action of the wrist are hallmarks of good technique. (The flash-and-slash of so-called "Japanese steakhouses" is actually anathema to real Japanese chefs.) The hands come under special scrutiny, of course: the nails must be clean, the fingers ring-free. Any tiny nick suffered during the contest immediately disqualifies the chef and makes his sushi inedible.
Some of the most important things aren't even enunciated. How sharp, and how even, is the knife's edge? How was it held by the chef? It sounds like ritual for its own sake -- five points for traditional placement of ingredients around the mat, the "correct" use of the dish clothes (how the chef soaks, squeezes and rinses the cloths; where he drapes them) and so on. One contestant was penalized for leaving the lid of the rice pot on the table. But such rules are actually intended to establish the most efficient layout for sushimaking, and to limit the likelihood of a chef's being injured by knives in the wrong place, hot dishes, etc.
Similarly, if you've ever seen four or five itamae working side by side behind a small sushi bar, you'll realize an elbow sticking out into the flow can be dangerous. Takashi Inomata of Sushi Taro is left-handed, but he has learned to make sushi right-handed -- the Jimi Hendrix of the sushi bar.
The education even continues in the midst of the judging. Mori leans over Ramsey's presentation and asks him to make another piece of mackerel nigiri. Slightly puzzled, Ramsey looks about, finds a leftover bit, trims it and pats it over rice, setting the nigiri down before the chief judge. Then Mori runs his finger across the mackerel's skin, and Ramsey is enlightened. The blue-gray "eyes" in the skin show better if the fish is stroked forward; if rubbed the wrong way, so to speak, the eyes "close." It's the sort of small aesthetic detail many "self-taught" sushimakers will never discover.